CEDAR CITY — Hundreds of participants, including political and civic leaders, businesspeople, farmers and other rural workers and advocates, gathered in Cedar City earlier this week for a three-day summit focused on rural issues and opportunities.
The event, which attracted nearly 800 attendees from all across the state to the Southern Utah University campus, marked the 34th anniversary of the event traditionally known as the “Rural Utah Summit, said event organizer Stephen Lisonbee, the governor’s senior advisor for rural affairs.
“We had about 750 people register for the summit,” Lisonbee said afterward, noting that the number included around 225 who signed up for the third day only, which was leadership day. The total number of attendees was about double that of either of the past two years, he said, adding that all 29 counties in the state were represented at the conference.
The increasingly popular event has been newly rebranded as “One Utah Summit,” to be held biannually starting next year, in Northern Utah in the spring and in Southern Utah in the fall, Lisonbee added.
Tuesday morning, the conference attendees were greeted via video message from Gov. Spencer Cox, who was unable to deliver the opening address in person, as he was in Spring City attending the funeral of Utah National Guard Staff Sgt. Paul Lincoln Olmstead, who died recently during a training exercise in Kentucky.
“In his behalf, myself and of course the Olmstead family, thank you for joining me in honoring him,” Cox said. “That’s what makes you so special, we really do take care of each other. And we all treasure that sense of community, that sense of belonging. And that’s really what’s at the core of the One Utah vision: making sure Utah is a place where everyone can be happy, safe, healthy and successful.”
During his video address, which was recorded the night before, Cox highlighted the summit’s theme of “One Utah: Opportunity for All.” He then outlined several goals that his administration has met over the past eight months.
“I’m happy to report that during our first 250 days in office, we have hit many significant milestones,” Cox said. “Our first order of business was, of course, confronting the pandemic. We executed an aggressive immunization plan and we continue to see more Utahns getting immunized. So far, we’ve administered more than 3.4 million vaccines into the arms of Utahns, which is incredible, but it’s not enough. So, we’re going to keep going. The challenge is protecting our healthcare system and keeping our kids safe and in school.”
Cox then cited several statistics and economic trends, including the state’s increase in gross domestic product being the highest in the nation since 2000. He also mentioned projected growth in tech and other industries, along with Utah’s low unemployment and poverty rates.
“We’ve hit a lot of our goals in the One Utah roadmap, but our work is far from finished,” he added, saying an updated version of the roadmap is on the way.
“We’ve added some really big ambitious goals, including tackling our water issues in a comprehensive and lasting way and restructuring education funding so it’s more equitably distributed,” he added. “Stay tuned to see our priorities for the next 250 days and beyond.”
Cox also admonished his fellow Utahns to strive to be less divisive.
“We can only move forward as a state if we look for the things that unite us and not those things that divide us,” he said, as he referenced a related quote by Abraham Lincoln.
“Now, we live in divisive times, just like Lincoln’s America, and we face tremendous challenges,” Cox said. “The past 18 months have been among the most challenging our state has ever seen. But we’ve got work to do. And we are committed to working together as a team, giving credit, bringing all communities along, and ensuring kindness and empathy accompany everything we do. From Logan to St. George, from forests to red rock, we are all one Utah.”
Cox joined the conference later in the day on Tuesday and participated in a panel discussion on Wednesday.
Following are a few assorted highlights from the conference, which wrapped up Wednesday afternoon.
Dave Staheli of Cedar City’s Staheli West received the conference’s “Rural Champion – International” award. He had taken the stage for a panel discussion on global economic trends and rural business opportunities. Staheli’s company sells hay-baling machines that utilize steam infusion, which are being used by farmers and ranchers around the world.
“If you have something that the world needs, getting the information out to the world so that they can see what you have is probably the most important thing,” Staheli said. “Then you can find the details and you can find ways to overcome the obstacles.”
Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, a St. George native and a top church official in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, received the “Rural Legacy Leader” award, after which he and his wife Patricia joined Utah’s First Lady Abby Cox onstage for a conversation regarding his small-town roots and how they shaped his life.
Other featured speakers included Ron Gibson, president of the Utah Farm Bureau; David Chen, CEO of Equilibrium; and Janice Brooks, chairwoman of the Utah Humanities Council. Several panel discussions were also conducted, with participants weighing in on rural issues.
Breakout sessions were also held on a variety of topics including energy, water, tourism, agriculture, public lands, entrepreneurship, healthcare, housing and global business.
Additionally, at the “State Bank Business Challenge” held Tuesday during lunchtime in SUU’s Sharwan Smith Center Ballroom, several aspiring entrepreneurs competed for a share of more than $25,000 worth of cash awards and prizes. Each participant or team had 90 seconds to make their sales pitch, followed by a couple more minutes of answering questions from the panel of judges, who then picked their favorites.
The conference kicked off on Monday evening with dinner and networking in the Greenshow Commons, followed by a private showing of “Pirates of Penzance,” courtesy of Utah Shakespeare Festival. Attendees could also go the adjacent Englestad Shakespeare Theater to see SUU theater students’ production of “The Tempest.”
With the One Utah Summit now shifting to a twice-a-year format, the next one is scheduled for May 10 in Salt Lake City. The rural summit will return to Cedar City next October.
Ed. Note: Article has been updated to reflect that the 225 registrants for the third day only were included in the 750 total attendees, rather than being in addition to that figure.
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